Saturday, February 14, 2015

Amherst Irish Association Launches Series of Events

On February 1, the new Amherst Irish Association held its inaugural event featuring a talk by Boston Globe reporter (and UMass alumnus) Kevin Cullen (@GlobeCullen) on "Irish Matters: A Journalist's Journey" at the Amherst Unitarian Universalist Society.

Association co-founder íde B. O'Carroll, speaking in both English and Gaelic, introduced Mr. Cullen, whose credentials include covering the conflict in Northern Ireland for over two decades, Pullitzer-prize-winning reporting of the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, numerous stories and a best-selling book on the hunt for mobster Whitey Bulger, and, most recently, award-winning coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing and trial of the accused perpetrator Dzokhar Tsarnaev.

 Mr. Cullen began by reading the Select Board's proclamation of the first annual Irish Day.

The time was roughly divided between the formal talk and a free-ranging discussion with the audience.

Topics that came up in the latter included the changes that Mr. Cullen had seen in Ireland over the years, from the performance of the Irish economy to Sinn Féin's electoral prospects in the south, and closer to home, the Bulger and Tsarnaev trials.

In the context of the latter, Mr. Cullen praised Twitter as a journalist's tool. Although, he quipped, his steady stream of coverage lost him some followers--"People say, 'I don't want 300 tweets a day about some guy picking his nose in the jury box'"--he found it an invaluable way to cover events first as they happen and then in more systematic and distilled fashion afterward. Because it was impossible to provide real-time coverage and take detailed notes at the same time, Twitter in effect became his notebook, for he went back to his Twitter stream and used the tweets as the skeleton for his subsequent full-fledged articles.

Even death is an occasion for a good joke

Known for his dry wit and ironic view of the world as well as his reporting, Mr. Cullen immediately earned a laugh from the audience with a joke about Unitarians. Noting that he was taking a risk by being somewhat mischievous given the setting, he suggested that it was a trait he had inherited from this father. He recalled how, as a Boston Irish Catholic, he first learned about Unitarians. His father took him to the funeral of a fireman acquaintance, who happened to be Unitarian. The boy asked what Unitarians were. The father explained and then said: "You know what you call a Unitarian in a casket? All dressed up and no place to go."  During the Q & A, Mr. Cullen managed to find humor in another topic involving mortality. Asked whether he had ever feared for his life while covering the pursuit and trial of notorious mobster and murderer Whitey Bulger, he shrugged, "What's he gonna do--throw a box of Depends at me? He's, like, 84 years old."

Irish-American pols old and new get the job done

The bulk of the formal talk, derived from a Globe piece last fall, was devoted to reflections on the changing profile of the Irish-American politician, from quintessential old-time Boston machine politico James Michael Curley to contemporary figures such as newly elected Boston Mayor Martin Walsh and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley (often spoken of as a potential Democratic presidential candidate). There were good reasons and historical circumstances, he said, behind the stereotype of the Irish machine politician.

As Cullen observed, the Irish, having faced vicious discrimination, saw the solution in electing their own. Being a good politician meant providing patronage: getting things done for constituents. At times, this approach collided with the ethics of the system or at least the groups that dominated it.

The clash of cultures was epitomized by the incident in which Mayor Curley impersonated an immigrant in order to take his civil service examination for him. As Cullen explained, "The Brahmins were horrified; the Irish and other working-class Europeans who would become his core voters loved him":
Curley went to jail for that impersonation, but as a political act it was priceless. The good government types were so appalled by Curley’s antics that after he became mayor of Boston in 1914 for the first of four terms, the gentle women of Beacon Hill and the Back Bay descended into the working-class enclaves of Charlestown and South Boston, to promote reform candidates who would beat back the Irish political machine.

Legend has it that one of these gentle ladies knocked on a door in Southie and was greeted by an Irishwoman holding a wash bucket. The nice lady from Beacon Hill asked the woman of the house to consider voting for her brother, one of the reformers taking on the Curley machine. When asked if her brother would be giving her a job if he won, the gentle lady from Beacon Hill was aghast. “Absolutely not,” she huffed. “That would be improper.”

The lady of the house sniffed, turned up her nose and said, “Why would I vote for a guy who wouldn’t give his own sister a job?”
Later, when the Irish no longer dominated the population, the would-be Irish politician had to come up with a new approach and voter base:
It has taken more than a generation for this phenomenon to take hold, and in that time the definition of an Irish pol has undergone a massive transformation. Being an Irish pol, for good and bad, has less to do with race and religion, more to do with sensibilities and culture.
Cullen pointed to several figures who epitomized this change. State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, who hosts the annual Saint Patrick's Day brunch, has an old Boston Irish husband--and Haitian parents. However, he singled out the two Martys--Marty Walsh and Marty O'Malley--as exemplars of the transformation. Walsh, he noted, is the first mayor with parents who were not English-speakers: they spoke Gaelic and came to the US only in 1950. Although Walsh is thus among the most "Irish" of politicians, his worldview and politics are anything but inward-looking. He feels close to the Boston Irish, but also to the immigrants from the Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia who make up his working-class constituency. Said Cullen: "He really does identify with minorities, with new immigrants. He says: these are my parents."

It was an instructive lesson and a hopeful message with which to begin a series dedicated to cross-cultural exchange.

 * * *

Following the lecture and discussion, the crowd adjourned to the social hall for tea and home-made scones and musical entertainment.

Rosemary Caine plays the harp

Emma Conrad-Rooney and Delia Mahoney perform Irish dance

Coming up next month:

Antonia Moore (introduced by Sam Hannigan), speaking on:

"From the Blasket Islands, County Kerry, to Hungry Hill, Springfield"

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